I am a Camera

Excerpted from:

Lisa Ruyter: ONE MILLION POSTCARDS; published by Skarabaeus

Imitation of Life: A Conversation Between Lisa Ruyter and Michael Cohen (2007)

By Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen: Your most recent exhibition of self-portraits in New York was titled I Am a Camera. That seems an apt description of the psychological state your paintings convey, one of distance and mechanical parts. Do you see those qualities in your work as well?

Lisa Ruyter: To a degree yes, but those qualities are aspects of a bigger picture. A camera is also a subjectifying device, despite the objective realism that photographic images are thought to convey. The camera frames, or outlines, a specific subject and makes an image via a distorting lens. You cannot specify what distance is without also by default defining closeness. I would say that my work covers a wider range on that particular spectrum than most people realize.

The title is also borrowed from the story that Cabaret is based on by Christopher Isherwood— of living in Berlin in the ‘30s. I have been living in Europe on or off for about three years, as I can’t really decide where I want to live, and have become very aware of the mechanics of building a social network in a new, and not entirely inviting, environment. The experience has also made me very ambivalent about what it means to be an expatriate American, especially in such a strange moment in current global politics. While I do not have any special fascination or love for this story (my show is not a tribute, though I enjoyed Cabaret), I do identify with the position of its writer.

The word camera in the title also seemed to emphasize a formal approach of using a black-and-white palette in the paintings (actually all grays). I am not sure viewers really got that part of it. The style was utilized as a reminder of the photographic origins and to refer to the well-discussed ideas of realism in photography and cinema, rather than a self-reflexive countermove to the use of color that people know in my work. I have wanted to make black-and-white paintings for years now since seeing some of my work reproduced in black-and-white. But an idea like that needs compatible subject matter and nothing really fit well until I started making self-portraits again last year.

MC: How do these self-portraits reflect or differ from the more visually hyperactive ones you made in 1993?

LR: That seems like an obvious question, but it has taken me completely by surprise. The earlier self-portraits served a very specific function for me in the development of my art. Looking back, I see many connections I never noticed before, the most important being that the earlier series was the first occasion where I utilized photography. Those self-portraits were collaged from photographs that a friend took, where I had told him what I wanted to look like and he directed my poses to try to achieve that.

Before that body of work, I had developed a system of collaging images together. The point was to force disparate and conflicting images to function on the same field somehow, so the viewer would participate in the cognition of the pictures. Different patterns of images would stand out as significant to different people. To that effect, my selection of images was very subjective. I always stayed away from trying to explain why I wanted a diagram of an airport to function in tandem with Warhol flowers. The self-portraits came about because I was at a creative dead-end and having a bit of a crisis about subject matter. I was experimenting with different formulations and repetitions and patterning and putting images of all the same class together, animals for example. I felt I had created a system that reflected my view of what shaped our ideas of the world, but that there was something deeply missing, specifically: a reason to make the next picture. I felt I owned this drawing style and language, but that there was nothing that I really owned that had any materiality or substance to it as subject matter. So it seemed that pictures of myself were a good place to start and that led me to collage all the images together like I was trying to put myself together from all of these different parts.

The other major watermark in that body of work was that it was the first example of my using titles. Before that, all of my pieces were untitled. Each drawing was called Untitled but then followed in parenthesis was the name of a philanthropic organization such as Send a Kid to Camp, Embrace Foundation, Search and Care, Inc., and so on. The pictures were installed on top of blueprints made from my earlier drawings, ones that I thought of as interesting but dead ends. They were placed behind the self-portraits because that is where they belonged. I would love to revisit that earlier work. So much of it seems absorbed into my being now. I wonder if I can remember what I was thinking then?

MC: Slavoj Zizek has noted that virtual reality shows that our own “real” reality has taken on the over-lit, abstract contours of the virtual, symbolic world. I was considering the color, light, and flat space in your paintings in relation to that notion. Do you think it applies to your work?

LR: I think the discussion of virtual reality has an interesting overlap with the discussion of realism and neo-realism, especially when talking about color, light, and space. Your question makes me recall a story about Antonioni. In one of his films, he had a real forest painted so that it would look more real on film. I think filmmakers who are using digital photography like Harmony Korine and Lars von Trier are interesting in that confusion of the artificial and the real as well.

I used to think a lot about virtual reality when I was making the early drawings, in terms of artificial landscapes versus natural ones … Smithson again. The things I think of as a new architecture—satellite systems, cellular phones, the Internet—really also function as landscape, and this creates artistic content. I am sitting on a rather isolated Greek island right now, but I can make a phone call at nearly every point on the island, check my e-mail, receive FedEx packages from New York, and I am seeing the deeply unsettling daily reports of what is going on in the Middle East not so far away from where I am. Which landscape is more real to me? It is difficult to say, and they certainly inform each other.

MC: The black-and-white palette you used in the recent self-portraits series seemed like quite a formal break with your previous multi-hued paintings. Is there an emotional signification to those grey tones or, if not, how did you decide to work that way?

LR: That series came about, as they often do, when two separate but somehow incomplete ideas came together and fit in a really solid way. I first thought about black-and-white paintings after I saw some work of mine in a black-and-white photograph of my studio published in a magazine. I was intrigued with the way they looked. Then I made one black-and-white painting called Pleasantville—probably one of the most direct title references I’ve made as the movie plays with black and white versus color—to try out the format, but never felt that the piece made it beyond a casual idea that needed further elaboration.

Then part two in the development was that I curated a show in a gallery space that I ran for three years in Vienna. The show was called The Image Is Gone, which was a title put out by Marc Bijl as part of a concept for me to respond to in putting together the show. Partly because you are not supposed to do it and also because I wanted to see what would happen if I did, I included myself in the show with a piece that was literally a picture of myself painted in black and white and because it made sense in the context of the other artists in the show.

I took a snapshot of that painting while it was sitting on a wooden floor. It just looked so strange and there was just something that was so compelling about this little painting. I had made four other tiny ones at the same time and they were so incredibly intimate. The color ones I made just before did not have the same power at all. I had to know if this dichotomy between the works was about the scale or the color.

I experimented with some shots of myself in this process and, somehow, every time, the color pieces ended up looking self-deprecating. For example, I tried to put myself in the position of a figure in The Mad Whirl who is putting a bunch of food in her mouth, a particularly vulnerable moment to be photographed. The work seemed a little embarrassing. In the experimentation, I learned a lot about representing yourself and also about certain limitations that I set up in the social reading of my work. In the black-and-white painting, I might somehow look older or younger, but in general making them almost felt like trying on a bunch of outfits before going out to dinner. In the end, they look like much more emotional works to me than almost anything that I have made in color.

MC: At your recent lecture at Cooper Union in New York, you mentioned that the early self-portraits had been given spurious titles like The Make A Wish Foundation to belie the impossibility of identity. Could you talk a little more about that?

LR: I have always hated a certain idea that people, mainly non-artists, seem to have about art: the assumed relationship between the person making it and the person viewing it—that art making is about being vulnerable, or soul-baring, or truth-telling in any sense of the word; that an artist is a different kind of person than anyone else in the world, living by a different set of rules. But to flat out reject the possibility that making a work of art can be a way to connect with another person is not any kind of solution to this issue either.


A work of art is a container for content, but that content will always change. The content of my work is different for me than it is for any viewer and I expect will continue to be a changing thing. Style is style. It is my personal style of making art, and I cannot step outside of that to say what it means. It is somehow an inadequate answer, but that is it.



I can however control certain things about the way it is seen. There is this object, which ends at the physical edges of the work, but can be affected by things like the title, a related series, where it is exhibited, how it reproduces, and what is said about it. If there is specificity about structures inside the physical edges of the work such as in the surface, line, and level of craft, then this specificity should be mutually reinforced by structures that exist outside of the work. These things can at least leave enough clues that there is a person behind these decisions. Not really like leaving a message in a bottle, but more like Sirk’s use of the windowpane in the funeral scene of Imitation of Life. Maybe that can read as the author feeling left out or otherwise separated from the action. But in fact, it reclaims authority. The author is the one who made the action in the first place. That is just my reading of Sirk’s method of achieving a balance with his audience and with his subject matter.

One of my ways of achieving a balance in my life is to put things in a painting that may be personal. This is the connection, by way of the camera, to my life. And then the subject, that image, is processed by my style and fit into my structure. Sometimes I choose an image because I don’t understand why it means nothing to me and sometimes I choose an image because it means more than it should. So when I make a painting of something my style does not automatically either neutralize or bring to life, it’s because what it does for me is different every time. In any case, my process fixes a perceived imbalance in my relationships to other people. This allows me to function as a person capable of building strong relationships with the people that I want to do this with. I think that this is why I go toward self-portraits when I am stuck. What this style means for other people, is hard for me to say. But I came to it by looking at the world around me, so it should be pretty easy for people to take something from it for themselves.


Interview conducted via e-mail July–December 2006.